9 / 5 / 2012

A Whitney Biennial that gives artists more personal space


The 2012 Whitney Biennial is roundly praised in the media as it presents a very different and often difficult exhibition.

New York’s Whitney Biennial is probably the most anticipated and prominent survey of contemporary American art in the country. It is also often the most harshly critiqued, since expectations for it are so high, but this year’s show was almost universally praised in the press. It is disturbing to see such a prominent exhibition that has received such praise, and feel no attraction or empathy from almost any of the work on display. Coupled with an actual respect for the work of the artists, as well as for the curators, both in intention and execution, and you have a truly alienating schism. How you can fail to really like even one work without disliking a single one? Of course personal taste is a dumb way to engage with artwork, especially as a critic, but it is also the unavoidable underpinning of every show you critique. There must be some level of intercommunication to feel either enthusiastically supportive or disdainful of a show. But to feel nothing, except the plain physical presence of so much earnestly hand-wrought work, causes an intellectual white noise to set in.

Over the past several iterations, the Biennial had grown to incorporate additional venues throughout the city. The scale this year is refreshingly compact – about 50 artists occupy only three floors of the main museum building, with almost one entire floor given over to a stark and stunning performance space hosting a revolving program. This gives viewers good reason to return, as well as practically ensuring that no one can see the entire show, despite its greatly reduced scope.

To generalize about the nature of the work on display would be to say that it is very physical in that most pieces are so obviously hand made, without a focus on high craft. There’s nothing slick or high tech, almost no photography, and few monumental pieces. The works included share a commonplace presence and often cite inscrutable, obscure or personal references, as if they were made for the artist alone, without a pressing need to communicate.

It could be argued that this is thrust of the show, and an accurate measure of the cultural current – everywhere we look we find people not trying to reach anyone else but themselves. This is not communication, it is the satisfying indulgence of making, a focus not about but rather manifesting incomprehension and alienation. As well, the works selected lack in cynicism, as well as overt market value – they are truly artworks, rather than products.

One of the most vital contributions is Andrea Fraser’s critical text, “There’s No Place Like Home,” which she includes as her artwork. It is displayed in the gallery, published in the exhibition catalogue, and downloadable from the website, so it has more potential to reach further audiences than any material work. She dissects the gap between what artists, curators and critics say that art does in the world, and the financial life that artworks lead as potentially enormously valuable commodities. It too is driven by her personal engagement with the narrative. She details how she increasingly distances herself from the artworld because of exactly this chasm of difference between the politics and ideas of art makers and those of art merchants and collectors. She calls for a change in the conversation about art, not in what artists make, but in what they say about what they are making – acknowledging the atmosphere of conflict and contradiction they find themselves in, especially as they achieve greater success and begin to feel the pressure of pleasing the political powers that start to exert influence over their expression.

The very heart of the show seems to lie at the feet of Forrest Bess, protagonist of an installation assembled by artist Robert Gober. Bess was a figure both on the fringe and in the center simultaneously. He lived a destitute life in a ramshackle shanty built from salvaged junk while showing his paintings at one of the most prestigious New York galleries of the day. He was the embodiment of devotion to a singular and dedicated calling, his art and life dictated by a consuming vision wholly his own. He achieved his lifelong dream of becoming a “pseudo-hermaphrodite” by performing surgery on himself, at the risk of his own life. He wanted to exhibit work detailing the transformation, but his gallerist refused, allowing only the cryptic references in his moving and primitive canvases to attempt (in vain) to tell the story so vital to him, but so foreign to most. In order to present his deepest desire for expression through his work, he had to wait until another artist, Gober, with the full support and acceptance of the art establishment, used his position to give Bess a venue and vehicle. Perhaps this can be seen as Gober’s way of changing the art conversation – giving voice to those who would otherwise go unheard, which can be powerful and affecting, even if we can’t fully understand what they are saying.

It is in just this way that the show as a whole ultimately succeeds. Operating on a different register than taste, trend or appeal, it proves its relevance and validity through its unwillingness to impress.

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